Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

Self-Defense Laws in California: When Can You Use Force to Protect Yourself?


In the state of California, self-defense laws allow individuals to use reasonable force to protect themselves from harm. However, the concept of “reasonable force” and the circumstances under which it can be used are often misunderstood. 

If you’ve been charged with assault, you may have actually been within your rights to defend yourself. The problem is proving that in court. Here’s what you need to know about self-defense in California and how you can protect yourself against assault charges by demonstrating that your use of force was justified. 

Comparing Assault vs. Self-Defense in California

In California, understanding the differences between assault and self-defense is crucial, as they represent two fundamentally different legal concepts.

Assault, in legal terms, is an attempt to violently injure another person. It’s important to differentiate between assault and battery –  assault does not necessarily involve physical contact but the attempt or threat to cause harm. Battery is the actual use of force or violence against another person. Both of these are serious crimes and can be charged as violent felonies, depending on the circumstances. 

But what if you need to use force to protect yourself? Can’t claiming you were defending yourself protect you against criminal convictions? Only sometimes, it turns out. Self-defense is referred to as an “affirmative defense” in criminal law. 

Affirmative defenses are arguments that justify actions that are otherwise illegal. When you claim you were trying to defend yourself, you’re confirming that you did use force or violence against the other person; however, you’re arguing that it was justified. This strategy can work, but it requires skilled legal counsel to successfully protect you from a criminal conviction. 

What Are the Requirements for Self-Defense?

You’re allowed to use force to protect yourself or others from someone else in California. However, if you face criminal charges for doing so, you need to demonstrate that your actions meet two criteria before your argument will be accepted in the courtroom. These criteria are:

  • Proportionality of Force: The force used in response to the perceived threat must be proportional to the danger. This means that the level of force should not exceed what would be necessary to prevent the harm. For instance, using deadly force is generally only justified if there is a reasonable belief that the threat involves imminent death or serious bodily injury.
  • Reasonable Belief of Imminent Harm: You must reasonably believe that you, or another person, are in imminent danger of being physically harmed. This belief must be based on objective circumstances that would lead a reasonable person in the same situation to perceive an immediate threat of harm.

Unlike some other states, California does not impose a general duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, even in public places. This means that if you reasonably believe you are in imminent danger, you can stand your ground and use force without first trying to escape the situation. However, the force used must still be reasonable and proportional to the threat.

Furthermore, in your own home, California law provides even stronger protection under what is known as the “Castle Doctrine.” This doctrine allows homeowners to use force (including deadly force) against an intruder if they reasonably believe the intruder intends to commit a violent act or is attempting to enter the home unlawfully.

Of course, there are also exceptions to these rules. For example, you cannot claim self-defense if you were the initial aggressor in the confrontation unless you have made a genuine attempt to withdraw from the encounter and communicated this to the other party. In other words, if you purposefully push someone and they shove you in return, you cannot claim that any other actions you take were to protect yourself unless you actually tried to stop and the other person kept attacking you anyway. 

Defending Against an Assault Charge

If you’re facing an assault charge and believe you acted to defend yourself, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you build your case. Your lawyer will help you:

  • Confirm the Threat of Harm: This argument is best reserved for situations where you genuinely believed that the threat of harm was immediate and that the use of force was a direct response to this threat.
  • Address the Proportionality of Your Response: Your lawyer will help you argue that the force you used in response to the threat aligned with the level of danger you perceived.
  • Gather and Present Evidence: Your attorney will collect medical records, photographs of injuries, and any physical evidence from the scene. They may also identify witnesses who saw the altercation and can corroborate your version of events. In some cases, they may call in expert witnesses, especially in complex cases involving the use of force.
  • Refute the Aggressor Label: Together, you will establish that you were not the initial aggressor, or if you were, that you made a clear and genuine attempt to retreat and communicated this intention.

Once you’ve built your case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not act to protect yourself. If there is credible evidence that you did, the burden shifts to the prosecution to disprove it. That can work in your favor, as proving negatives, such as a lack of reasonable fear, is known to be difficult. 

Defend Yourself With Skilled Legal Representation

Defending against an assault charge with a self-defense claim requires careful preparation and a deep understanding of legal nuances. Each case is unique, and the success of a self-defense claim will depend on the specifics of the incident, the evidence available, and the skillful presentation of your case.Experienced legal representation is essential to successfully arguing that you were defending yourself. At the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib, we can help. Schedule your consultation to learn how we can help you fight back against assault and battery charges and demonstrate that you were protecting yourself in Redwood City, California.